I had been visiting &/or working alongside Haitians, in Haiti, for several years. The people we love and worked alongside were my people and I was their people. I felt as though I belonged, so to speak.
I very vividly remember the first time it happened. A Haitian friend and I were walking down a village street. I could feel many sets of eyes on me. Some glances elicited a smile, others sneers, some taunted me with invitations. I turned to my friend and ignorantly said, “Why is everyone looking at me?” I know what you are thinking. “Duh, Tricia”. I get it now. Prior to that moment I had felt like I belonged, I was part of the same group, accepted. Because I have never felt a prejudice over anyone or anything it simply hadn’t occurred to me that my white skin stuck out like a bolt of lightning at midnight. My friend chuckled, glanced sideways at me with a grin on his face as he realized I was serious, and said, “Tricia, you are white. You look different. “
I protested on the spot, “But I am not different. How do I show the world around me that I did not choose the color of my skin any more than they chose theirs?” My friend shook his head and said, “I’m not sure I will ever understand you well.” Yeah, me either!
When we lived in Haiti the pain seared more frequently, more deeply. The simple color of my skin went before my faith, my personality, my love and my intentions. People that had not yet gotten to know and understand me would assume how I would behave, assume what they could and could not “get” from me. It was even usually assumed I could not communicate with them because I surely could not speak their language – but I could.
The ability to speak Haitian Creole became a bridge to relationship beyond what I had ever anticipated when I chose to dedicate the time to learning it. (No judgment intended for those who do not find language an easy study or whose lives at home do not allow for time to learn yet do allow for time to serve alongside a translator. I love you. I love and welcome your servant heart.) Countless times even my ability to speak, even if only deeply enough to have casual conversation, squelched judgment. It brought us to more equal ground.
The ability to shop at the local open market without a translator opened relationship with market women and a window into life as a Haitian woman I could not get otherwise. Real friendship was formed. When I would send one of the boys to run my errands they would bring back word from my friends, greetings and asking of my wellbeing and the reason for my absence from their market booths. I began to crave that interaction and I began to feel as though I was accepted as one of theirs. On several occasions a random seller at market would jeer at me, or would attempt to take advantage of me on price but others selling nearby would scold them and tell them to “stop that, she is Haitian.”
During this time of protests in the U.S. I am finding myself remembering more and more times that I myself felt singled out. No matter how hard I tried to be respectful of the culture, to assimilate with language and break down barriers erected by some that passed before me, there remain barriers.
People talk about the “bad eggs” that set up a bad reputation for “blacks” in America. It goes both ways. I faced the same thing in Haiti as a white person. Assumptions were often made about how I would behave or respond, according to how other “whites” had treated Haitians before me. Sometimes that was stellar and set a bar for me to strive toward. More often it was hurtful and presented a barrier to be chipped away at one layer at a time.
Interestingly, during conversation with a close Haitian friend this week he said, “the protests aren’t about race, we are all the same”. He sees and hears the news. I was surprised, then realized he lives in Haiti, has never had the privilege to travel outside of Haiti. Yes, while surrounded by Haitians, with variations of dark skin but all dark, it must feel similar to being white in America. We are all the same. Most of us see you as no different than us.
I am grateful for the privilege of life immersed in a different culture. I am thankful for living with less. I praise God for pushing me to put my faith into action and to put actions alongside my beliefs. I pray that one day we are all able to see beyond color, or political party and hold each other accountable to love all as we would want to be loved ourselves.